Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burke, John (1842–1919)

by G. R. C. McLeod

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

This is a shared entry with John Edward Burke

John Burke (1842-1919) and John Edward Burke (1871-1947) were shipmasters and ship-owners. John was born in 1842 at Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, son of Denis O'Hara Burke, fisherman, and his wife Ellen, née O'Connor. In his youth he made several Atlantic voyages as a seaman and was in the United States of America at the outbreak of the civil war. Returning to Ireland, he signed on the Erin-Go-Bragh, chartered by a brother of Bishop James Quinn to take Irish emigrants to Queensland. After a six-months voyage with much sickness, passengers and crew were released from quarantine to land in Brisbane on 8 August 1862.

Burke jumped ship, worked briefly as a pilot, then joined the Australasian Steam Navigation Co., sailing as a deck-hand in the Queensland and the Telegraph. On 1 October 1863 he married 20-year-old Elicia Swords who had been a passenger on the Erin-Go-Bragh. After working for a time on river and bay ships, Burke secured a master's licence restricted to sheltered waters, and commanded the Fanny, trading to the Logan and Albert rivers for Honeyman & Sons. In the Logan flood of 22 January 1887, Burke and his crew worked indefatigably to save over fifty lives and earned a public testimonial.

When his employers closed down that year, he bought the Louisa from them and traded first to Ipswich and the Logan and Albert rivers and later into Moreton Bay. The Louisa brought the first relief supplies to Ipswich after the 1893 flood. Burke acquired other small vessels and lighters for his fleet and in the early twentieth century added coal-bunkering plant. About 1910 he sold the lighters and bunkering plant and bought the Porpoise to establish a coastal service. He later added the Gundiah and the paddle-steamer Adonis for the Maryborough-Townsville timber trade. He retired in 1915 but served as a director of John Burke Ltd until his death from pneumonic influenza on 3 June 1919. He was buried in Toowong cemetery with Roman Catholic rites; his estate was sworn for probate at £6776.

Of Burke's twelve children, Peter Patrick (1877-1963) sailed as a master for the company, while William Joseph (1882-1966) worked as a stevedore and supervised a fuel business owned by the company. John Edward was born on 8 January 1871 in Brisbane. Educated at state schools, he began work as a plumber's assistant, then served as a deck-hand on the Fanny and, probably from 1887, shared ownership of John Burke & Son. He married Bridget O'Keefe at St Stephen's Cathedral, Brisbane, on 17 April 1895; they had three children.

When his father retired, John Edward took over management of the company. Services were extended along the Queensland coast and in 1921 to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which was soon described by residents as 'Burke's flaming ocean'. He saw a big future for the company in promoting Gulf settlement and became a provisional director of a proposed Karumba Co-operative Meat and Canning Co. The plan proved abortive but, when eventually in 1934 Shand's Gulf Meatworks were constructed, Burke's supplied the wharf at Karumba where the meatworks continued to operate until World War II.

Difficulties created by waterfront strikes and cost increases in the 1920s and 1930s were compounded by the loss of two ships. The Douglas Mawson, chartered from the Queensland government, disappeared during a Gulf cyclone in March 1923 and twelve crewmen and five passengers perished; the company-owned Dorrigo sank off Double Island Point on 2 April 1926 with a loss of twenty-two lives.

Burke was an alderman of South Brisbane in 1908-23 and mayor in 1912; he was prominent in the municipal acquisition and extension of the area's wharves, served on the Victoria Bridge Board, represented employers on the Board for Masters and Engineers of River and Bay Steamboats and Barges, and in 1915 failed as a Liberal candidate for the South Brisbane parliamentary seat. He followed the turf and, as chairman of the Kedron Amateur Racing Club, negotiated the purchase in 1923 of the interests of John Wren and his partner Ben Nathan in unregistered Brisbane race-courses. He was involved again with Wren over the Cooparoo Turf Club in 1929, as chairman of directors of Brisbane Amusements Ltd. A royal commission in 1930 on racing found both transactions highly dubious.

Burke's contemporaries remembered him as a strong character with a lively sense of humour. An unrepentant enthusiast for private enterprise, he defined Australia as 'an island surrounded by Navigation Acts … and vexatious regulations of all descriptions'. The paintwork of his ships, originally Irish green, was changed to black with green funnels after repeated black bans by striking unions. However, the firm held the respect of its men who argued that 'they fed us well and treated us well'; many employees became shareholders. He would have no truck with women, even in his office, because no lady would stand his language.

Burke died on 8 October 1947 at his home at Kangaroo Point and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Roman Catholic rites. His estate was valued for probate at £48,264. His son John Augustine (1896-1972) managed the company in his turn until it was taken over by the Dillingham Corporation in 1968.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. McGill, Historical Happenings and Incredible Incidents of the Queensland Turf (np, nd. Copy, Burke University of Queensland Library)
  • D. Doyle, A Saga of the Sea (Brisb, 1937)
  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (Brisb, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1930, 2, 1289
  • ‘A legend in Queensland's development: John Burke Pty. Ltd.’, Queensland Maritime Bulletin, 5 (1973), no 3, supplement
  • Burke cutting book (State Library of Queensland)
  • Immigration records, 1862, and Company file 158/1920 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

G. R. C. McLeod, 'Burke, John (1842–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-john-5429/text9207, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1842
Kinsale, Cork, Ireland

Death

3 June 1919

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation